FIFTEEN years ago, when it became obvious economies of scale would cause all the small car makers to be swallowed up by the giants, I figured that in the fullness of time, only two of the then current crop would remain: Mercedes-Benz and Honda.
These were the only two that actually moved the game forward. While the rest were fitting their cars with gimmicky head-up displays to lure bored flies into their web of finance deals, Honda and Mercedes were innovating, working with hydrogen propulsion and dreaming up stuff that would make a difference. And I reckoned that ultimately this was what would keep them going in a world where big was good and bigger was better and China was the biggest of them all.
But then it looked as if Honda had just given up. It stopped making interesting, revvy little hatchbacks and exciting coupés, and intoxicating mid-engined supercars and . . . er, this is awkward, I can’t actually remember what it did instead.
I seem to recall there was a little off-roader that had a completely stupid shower in the back, and my mother at this stage bought a small Jazz because it was available in pink. But then it stopped that colour so she replaced it with a Volkswagen Golf.
After this, I really haven’t a clue. I drove fairly regularly past Honda’s giant plant in Swindon and I could see much activity but what they were making in there? Sorry. No idea. Nothing I’d want, that’s for sure. And if you’re reading the motoring pages of The Sunday Times, I guess it’s nothing you’d want either.
There was talk of Honda’s best engineers working on a replacement for the much-loved NSX but every time I called to ask how it was getting along with what sounded like quite a clever hybrid drive system, I got a lot of “ers” and “ums”, and some waffle about how the engineers were in California “benchmarking” the Chevrolet Corvette. And some beaches probably.
“This is a wonderful car to drive hard … it changes direction like an electrocuted swallow”
Eventually the new NSX arrived in the showrooms but it caused as much of a stir as the company’s efforts in Formula One. It’s not a bad car by any means, but it doesn’t make you go: “Wow.” You don’t take a drive and think: “God, I’ve got to have one of those.”
And Honda took such a ridiculously long time developing a hot and interesting version of the Civic that by the time it came out, the company was already winding down production of the car on which it was based. So it arrived in the marketplace and before the echo of the fanfare had died down, it had been dropped.
Happily, the manufacturer has been a bit quicker off the mark with the hot version of the new Civic. And yet despite the rush job, it’s like the Honda of old is back because it has created something a bit special.
The 2-litre turbocharged engine is said to be largely unchanged from the previous model but whatever small alterations Honda has made have transformed it into a big, comforting muscle. You find yourself pressing the throttle gently just to experience the beginning of a shove. It’s like limbering up for an arm-wrestle with a man who builds oil rigs. You haven’t felt the power yet, but you know pretty soon you’re going to have a dislocated shoulder.
However, it’s not the shove or the speed that impresses most with the Type R. It’s the chassis. There’s a wider track than on the last incarnation and a stiffer superstructure. And that sounds as if you’re in for more grip, if you can tolerate the bone-shaking ride. Nope. What you get is phenomenal grip and a ride that’s actually quite absorbent. It’s not a Labrador puppy, obviously, but it won’t shake out your fillings either.
This is a wonderful car to drive hard. Yes, it’s a bit of a fatty but you’re never really aware of the weight because it changes direction like an electrocuted swallow. Couple that to the 315 rampaging horsepowers, the 295 torques and the bark from a weird triple exhaust system and there’s no doubt Honda is back with a car that’s extremely good fun.
Is it as much fun as the Ford Fiesta ST? No, it isn’t. I know of no car that is more fun on an ordinary road than the Fiesta. What’s more, the Ford is little and the Honda isn’t and that matters. The point of a hot hatchback — and the reason I love them so very much — is they are fast and fun and brilliant to drive but when all is said and done, they are also hatchbacks. So they are practical and sensible and cheap to mend as well.
“We’re told all its winglets and spoilers are there for a reason and I think I know what the reason is: to tell your neighbours you are very fond of football violence and shoplifting”
The original Golf GTI — arguably the first of the breed — played a big part in putting MG out of business because here was a car that was more of a laugh than the little sports car but which could also take a family of five and their luggage to the seaside. It was the Seventies, remember. People went to the seaside then.
And that’s where the Honda keeps on scoring because although it’s a rampaging Nürburgring meister, it also has five doors and a large boot and fold-down rear seats. You don’t get any of that in a Lamborghini.
What’s more, it comes as standard with 20in wheels and a reversing camera and a (fiddly) sat nav system and so on. Prices start at £30,995, which is surprisingly low. So that’s good, as is the fuel economy, as is the depreciation. The insurance won’t be funny, I’ll grant you, but that aside, this will be an inexpensive car to run.
So there we are, the perfect hot hatch; fast, fun, frugal and fitted with five doors for a family of . . . God, I hate alliteration.
And I also hate the Type R because just look at it. Have you ever seen anything so wilfully yobbish? We’re told all its winglets and spoilers are there for a reason and I think I know what the reason is: to tell your neighbours you are very fond of football violence and shoplifting. And you have a knife.
I know a guardsman who is thinking of getting a Type R and I just know that if he does, he will wear his bearskin back to front.
I was embarrassed to drive it. Yes, a number of people pointed, made enthusiastic noises and took photographs, but a far larger number pointed for different reasons. You could see them thinking: “How small does your penis have to be before you’d buy a car like that?”
There’s a similar problem of course with the Ford Focus RS and Mercedes-AMG A 45. Neither is as in yer face as the Honda but they both wear their street-fighting credentials on the outside. Maybe this doesn’t bother you. Maybe you quite like to stir things up. But if you don’t, buy a VW Golf R. It’s not as much fun as the Honda and it isn’t as fast at top speed. But you will look less of a knob.
Head to head: Honda Civic Type R vs Ford Focus RS
|Honda Civic Type R GT||Ford Focus RS|
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